It’s transfer deadline week which means it’s that time of the year when Daniel Levy realizes the football executive version of this old Jon Bois tweet:
why watch overtime playoff hockey when you can simply snort cocaine and ride a motorcycle out of a helicopter— Jon Bois (@jon_bois) April 17, 2014
Within a few hours yesterday various media outlets, aggregators, and ITKs linked Spurs with:
- Paulo Dybala
- Philippe Coutinho
- Giovanni Lo Celso
- Bruno Fernandes
- Youcef Atal (This one looks fake as the only source is a fake Tottenham aggregator account. Related: What kind of person starts a fake football club aggregator account?)
- Elseid Hysaj
- Ryan Sessegnon
The club was also rumored to be shopping Ivorian right back Serge Aurier and creative midfielder Christian Eriksen.
So all a normal early August in the life of Daniel Levy, really.
When a club is linked with so many players, it’s inevitable that the fan base will be divided about who the club should actually sign. In this case in particular there are four broadly similar players—creative passers that would work as 8s or 10s in a double pivot or midfield diamond. So who should Spurs actually sign given the many different targets being linked with the club? Let’s break it down.
Giovanni Lo Celso
Real Betis midfielder Giovanni Lo Celso has been linked with the club all summer. Indeed, one way of reading Tottenham’s interest in Fernandes, Dybala, and Coutinho is that it is a negotiating tactic Levy is using to force Betis to agree to a deal. The Spanish club does not have a large amount of money and has already made multiple noteworthy signings this summer. It’s doubtful they can hold onto Lo Celso long-term—and the player is widely believed to want the move to Spurs.
So why are Tottenham so keen to sign him? And why isn’t anyone else? (The answer to the second question: Because everyone else is stupid.)
There are three main reasons to love Lo Celso.
First, he’s young—still only 23-years-old, Lo Celso is actually only two days older than Dele Alli. So the potential upside for the Argentine midfielder is enormous. He’s already very good (more on that shortly) but it’s not inconceivable that he would make a major leap in the next two seasons. Also, as is always the case with Spurs, Lo Celso potentially offers massive sell-on potential should he decide to move on from the club in three or four years.
Second, he’s versatile. He played more in the attacking third last season for Betis, but during his time at PSG he mostly played in a midfield two. There are some similarities to Dele with Lo Celso in that he’s arguably able to play as an eight or a ten in a diamond, any midfield or attacking band role in a 4-2-3-1, and as an eight in a 4-3-3. This kind of flexibility makes him a vintage Pochettino signing.
Third, he’s genuinely fantastic already. Here’s the radar:
Giovani Lo Celso of Betis and Dele Alli 18-19 on the midfielder template.— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) March 5, 2019
They play different roles for their teams, but Lo Celso looks like everything he was touted as before the move to PSG.
Lo Celso has a flexible skill set a bit in the mold of M Dembele or Rakitic. pic.twitter.com/sfuYVBKr8N
Lo Celso offers great ball progression, is an excellent dribbler, draws a lot of fouls (predictable given his dribbling), and is an active defense presence in midfield. The possibilities for Spurs in midfield with Lo Celso joining Tanguy Ndombele are fascinating. Recall that this is Ndombele’s radar from last season:
Tanguy NDombele vs Mousa Sissoko 18-19 on the midfielder template.— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) June 3, 2019
One of these guys is really, really good. pic.twitter.com/V7pSv6Y6F2
Between Ndombele and Lo Celso, Spurs would have two versatile midfielders who offer fantastic ball progression without sacrificing defensive activity—and though both are good dribblers, both also do a lot of their progression via longer passes. Compare Lo Celso and Ndombele to Mousa Dembele. This uses an older radar model, but if you compare “long passes” to “deep progressions” you can get a ballpark sense of how Dembele compares to Ndombele and Lo Celso:
Mousa Dembele, Tottenham 16-17. He's amazing. More important for Spurs and harder to replace than Alli (and I love Dele). pic.twitter.com/PMSO6ylcVN— Gone til September (@mixedknuts) April 20, 2017
This is not to criticize Mousa, which no one at CFC will ever do. Dembele was the perfect midfielder for the Tottenham side of those days which tended to rely more on an attritional style that simply grinded teams down via sustained high pressure.
These days, Spurs are more of a direct, fast counter attacking side. When you combine the air raid style that Spurs embraced last year with two fast ball progressing mids like Lo Celso and Ndombele, the possibilities are exciting.
Lo Celso also offers cover for Spurs in other positions. Assuming Eriksen is sold, the likeliest system for Spurs is a diamond with Harry Winks sitting behind Tangiovanni (this is a thing now) with Dele as the 10 behind Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min. But because of Lo Celso’s flexibility, he can easily move into a number 10 role should one of Dele, Son, or Kane get hurt. So when Kane inevitably injures his ankle doing a stupid try-hard challenge 70 yards from goal, we could easily see Dele and Son up top with Lo Celso as the 10 and Moussa Sissoko slotting into midfield with Ndombele.
For all these reasons, Lo Celso should be the top priority for Spurs between now and the close of the transfer window.
Fernandes has been linked with Spurs as well as Manchester United and Manchester City throughout this summer window. Lately though it looks as if the player will either be coming to Spurs or staying in Lisbon for another year.
Fernandes is an aggressive creative midfielder who, like Lo Celso, has played both as a conventional central midfielder and as a number 10. This is, again, an older radar but it shows his performance while at Sampdoria as a 19-year-old where he was used as more of a central mid:
Bruno Fernandes, Udinese 2014. Unusual package of stats here, but screams potential at age 19. pic.twitter.com/xjPOeecTgK— Gone til September (@mixedknuts) July 23, 2014
Even then, Fernandes took a lot of shots, had a general attitude of “LOL what even is possession,” toward ball retention, and loved to take risks pushing forward. But he also shows some interesting ball-winning numbers. One of the common themes with the midfielders Spurs chased earlier in the summer has been strong ball progression combined with some level of defensive activity, such that they could play deeper midfield roles without requiring an N’Golo Kante-type player, who Spurs obviously do not have, to hide the defensive holes their presence creates.
The more recent Fernandes numbers are still... hard to interpret:
Bruno Fernandes, Sporting CP 18-19.— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) June 7, 2019
There's just like... a lot... going on here. pic.twitter.com/9AEHL5wp5G
So his passing accuracy is horrible, he turns the ball over a ton, and he takes obnoxious numbers of shots from outside the box. On the other hand, his xG assist numbers are fantastic, he wins lots of fouls, and he progresses the ball well. The new passing sonar visualization from StatsBomb tells the story:
Bruno Fernandes is...not shy about passing aggressively. pic.twitter.com/SAQO7ULg39— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) August 3, 2019
One way of reading this: Fernandes is an undisciplined player who takes too many risks to offset the positive qualities he offers, however real those might be.
Another way of reading it: He’s an elite creator who plays in a league that isn’t good enough for him and so he gets bored and tries crazy shit because most of the teams he plays are really bad and Sporting will destroy them regardless of how wasteful he is in possession.
In one sense there’s some odd parallels with Dembele here. They are very different players, but the thing that ties them together is that both have tremendous strengths balanced by pretty gaping holes in their game. Dembele’s lack of progressive passing didn’t matter because his ball retention and defensive work was so exceptional and Spurs didn’t really need a great progression player due to their style. The question with Fernandes is whether his qualities are similarly sufficient and whether Spurs could develop a system that suits him. While we should never bet against Mauricio Pochettino’s ability to tailor a system to his personnel, the changes required to accommodate Fernandes may be too great.
One of the strangest things about this window is that the two best targets for Spurs are both the kind of players we’d expect Spurs to be linked with in the past—an up-and-coming player from a smaller European league and an up-and-coming player who washed out at a much larger club.
The two less exciting signings are the kinds of players that Spurs fans have dreamt about for years and who the club can now realistically go after thanks to the new stadium.
The first of these two players is Paulo Dybala. The Argentinian forward, nicknamed La Joya, is known for his highlight-reel goals and, prior to the arrival of Ronaldo, was usually the starting center forward for perennial European contender Juventus. But when you look at the underlying numbers, it’s hard to figure out what Dybala actually is:
Paolo Dybala, Juventus 2017-18 and 2018-19 radar comparison and shot maps. pic.twitter.com/iW7I0rZR3b— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) July 25, 2019
Some of the slip we’re seeing in 2018-19 is due to being forced to play around Cristiano Ronaldo. But even the superior 17-18 radar is quite odd when you look at it. He turned the ball over constantly and though he was a shot monster his xG/shot is quite low—which is reflected in the xG chart. Dybala loves to shot from distance—and absent a hot finishing streak in 2017-18 it’s hard to tell if he’s actually good at doing that.
What the model does show is that Dybala is an elite passer. It’s plausible that as the tip of a midfield diamond Dybala could excel. His best position is almost certainly as a number 10 but he’s never gotten consistent minutes in that role—always being asked instead to play as a center forward or wide attacker. It’s possible that as the advanced fulcrum of a high pressing attack Dybala could thrive.
That being said, he is 26, which means he offers minimal sell-on value and is unlikely to improve going forward—or at least his potential to improve is more limited than Lo Celso’s. Also, as he is a far bigger name he will demand a much bigger wage packet, which could limit what kind of money Spurs could offer other future targets or players the club wishes to resign.
Let’s start here: Coutinho is #actually a fantastic player. The popular turn against him is almost entirely down to his admittedly ridiculous transfer fee (but that isn’t his fault) and the fact that Barcelona has never been able to figure out how to use him. In a team that also includes Ousmane Dembele and Lionel Messi, it’s hard to find a ton of time left for Coutinho to be on the ball, but that is where he does his best work:
The last four years of Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool. Age 21 onwards. He's pretty great.— Gone til September (@mixedknuts) January 25, 2017
(13-14 is top left, current is bottom left). pic.twitter.com/MLZefyRNtu
This is basically “Better Christian Eriksen.” And if Coutinho was being brought in to replace Eriksen, that’s a pretty good deal.
True, those numbers are from two and a half years ago. But Coutinho is still only 27. There’s no reason to think he couldn’t return to that level if given a good run of playing time and a chance to actually do the things he does best.
From the standpoint of pure footballing quality, Coutinho would be a fantastic addition. But, of course, that isn’t the only factor to consider.
Barcelona reportedly want £80m for the midfielder. Given what they spent on him, you can’t blame them. But it’s hard to see any club lining up to pay that fee for a player his age and who will, fair or not, be regarded as damaged goods. That said, the alternative that Spurs reportedly wanted—a one-year loan with a high loan fee and Barcelona covering Coutinho’s massive wages—doesn’t really help Tottenham long-term. It’s the Spurs version of Arsenal’s Dani Ceballos loan: It strengthens the team for that one year and perhaps helps them transition from one era to another. But it doesn’t strengthen the club long-term in any direct way.
The early target for Tottenham remains the best: If Spurs sign Lo Celso, everything else in the window is gravy. It’d be nice to also add Fernandes if Eriksen is sold. But if Spurs simply bring in Lo Celso as a replacement for Eriksen, that’s a good window. Fernandes (or Dybala) would simply add depth to the team and minimize the chance that the club will once again need Moussa Sissoko to contribute 2500 quality minutes in the Premier League. That’s probably worth something, of course. But is it worth what Fernandes or Dybala would cost? That’s a harder question.